One of the highlights of the Advent season, and in a sense its symbolic beginning, is today’s Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. On the other days of Advent, we reflect on the various public ways in which God prepared the world for the coming of the Messiah. The words and actions of the prophets, for example, were well known; they were written down and read and re-read by the Jews for centuries. But the event we focus on today, the most significant preparation event of all, took place in the greatest secrecy. It was not recorded in the Scriptures, nor had anyone ever even imagined such a thing.
Conception is almost always a secret. Only in recent years have scientists been able to determine exactly when, where, and how it takes place. They have even dared to remove conception from its proper place in the sanctuary of the mother’s body, and watched it take place under a laboratory microscope. Still, even in our insolent times, the first moments of human life usually remain a secret in the mind of God. Even the mother finds out only weeks later.
Mary’s life began in the usual way, in the sacred marital embrace of her parents, whom we refer to as Sts. Joachim and Anne. The miracle we celebrate today took place in the womb of Anne – although a scientist would say, more accurately, in one of Anne’s fallopian tubes. Every conception is a miracle, but the miracle of Mary’s conception is unique precisely because it is “immaculate,” without any trace of sin. Mary was conceived “full of grace,” the first sinless person to enter human history since the fall of our first parents. Suddenly a new creation had begun! Here was a new beginning for the human family, a new mother, a “new Eve” who would not transmit to the next generations the horrible effects of original sin. Mary’s conception, then, was an extraordinary marvel of grace, a marvel of mercy – and yet no one knew about it at all, not even St. Anne herself.
The grace of the Immaculate Conception remained a secret for a long time, until the event we read about in today’s Gospel, the Annunciation. On that day the angel Gabriel was sent to the little provincial town of Nazareth, where he surprised a humble young virgin with an unusual greeting: “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you!” Mary’s secret identity was suddenly openly announced: she is “full of grace.” We are very familiar with this greeting, since we use it every time we pray the Hail Mary, but back then, no one knew that Mary was “full of grace.” Even Mary herself did not know it. So, rather than rejoicing, she found herself “greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Of course she did not understand it, so Gabriel went on to explain that she had been chosen to be the Mother of the Son of God. This is why the Immaculate Conception is a decisive Advent event. Mary is conceived full of grace in preparation for her role as the Mother of the Messiah to come, Jesus Christ.
The liturgy highlights the connection between the conception of Mary and the story of Adam and Eve. Our first parents were created immaculate, but they sinned, and their sin afflicts every one of their descendants. However, the story of Adam and Eve also foretells, in a mysterious way, the coming of a redeemer. In today’s first reading, when God gives the serpent his punishment for tempting Eve, he also reveals that one of Eve’s offspring will crush the serpent’s head. This is the first hint in the Bible that we will be saved from the tragedy of sin through a human savior. The offspring of Eve is actually Jesus Christ. After a long Advent of preparation, he will come into the human family through Mary, the Immaculate Conception.
The wonder of God’s plan is not limited to preserving Mary from sin. From the beginning his intention was that all of us would be free from sin, “full of grace.” The Immaculate Conception is proof that his plan, which seemed to be defeated by sin, would be fulfilled in a new and even greater way. God is not defeated by sin! Mary was redeemed by Christ by being preserved from sin, while we are redeemed by being saved from sin. St. Paul writes to the Ephesians about the marvel of this gift, praising the Father for having chosen each one of us, including Mary, “before the foundation of the world,” that is, before sin ever entered the picture. God chose us in Christ “to be holy and without blemish [immaculate!] before him. In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved.”
Today is a day to rejoice in the Lord, as Mary does, because the Lord has done great things for us. He has chosen her to be immaculate from her conception, to serve as the Mother of his own Son; he has chosen us to be immaculate from our Baptism and adopted us as his own beloved children. “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous deeds!”
What are some of the hidden ways – the miracles – that God manifests himself in my life? As an offspring of Eve, how do I struggle with the tragedy of my sin condition? Having been saved from sin by the Redemption of Jesus, in what ways do I give glory and praise to God?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 1. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.